In this occasional feature, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue that is important to our city. We invite our readers to join in the debate in the comments section after the post.
Signs, signs, everywhere signs. The beginning of the year marked the first anniversary of a controversial and radical ban of all nearly outdoor advertising in São Paulo, Brazil. While Toronto’s advertising problems are certainly not as serious as São Paulo’s, we do have a problem. The extensive work by Rami Tabello on his website illegalsigns.ca has found that nearly half of all the billboards in Toronto are illegal. According to Tabello, this shouldn’t surprise anyone because “[t]he outdoor advertising industry has a global culture of non-compliance with the law.” Given this situation, is a total ban on billboards something the city of Toronto should consider? Read on as Torontoist posts two different opinions…
Advertising has become such a part of our everyday lives that we rarely question it. Whenever we watch television, read newspapers and magazines, or surf painfully hip city blogs, we are exposed to myriad forms of advertising. In fact, without the dollars generated in this way, it would be very difficult for much of our culture to exist and prosper.
Billboards, however, are very different from other forms of advertising.
While other types of ads give something in return for the attention they demand, the relationship between the consumer and the billboard advertiser is entirely one-sided. When we engage with culture that depends upon advertising for its survival, we are consenting to give a portion of our attention to those who pay for it. If you don’t want to watch television commercials, then don’t watch commercial television. It’s as simple as that.
In these contexts, the relationship between the consumer, the advertiser, and the culture is symbiotic. Advertisers pay culture providers, culture providers pay artists enough so that they can eat and buy the occasional dime-bag, and some of the consumers purchase some of the advertised products. It’s the glorious circle of life in a capitalist society.
Billboards, on the other hand, require no consent. Rather than being symbiotic, they are entirely parasitic. They clutter our public spaces, ruin sight lines, and intrude upon our daily commutes, all while providing nearly nothing in return. Unlike ads on television or in magazines, billboards don’t really pay for the roads we drive on, or the public spaces we walk through. Worst of all, they can’t be turned off, skipped through, or otherwise avoided .
The Mayor of São Paulo won public support for the ban on outdoor advertising by conflating billboards with other kinds of pollution. In many ways, this is a very apt analogy. Like pollution, billboards degrade the public space while bringing profit to a very small group. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons.
One approach to the problem of Toronto’s proliferation of billboard advertising, suggested by local urban activist and artist Devon Ostrom, is the Beautiful City Billboard Fee. This would be a tax based on the size of billboards that would raise perhaps as much as $6 million per year for local artists and arts organizations. According to polling research on their website, 66% of Torontonians would approve of such a tax and 60% of people think that less billboards would make the city more beautiful.
While the BCBF would certainly be a step in the right direction, and the idea has a lot of support, there is a very real fear that in a city as strapped for cash as ours, the last thing we need is a financial incentive for council to allow our streets to be overrun by billboards. A tax on billboards also doesn’t overcome the fundamental question of consent, and the right we should have to enjoy public spaces without constantly being pitched to eat more fast food, or lose weight, or buy a general panoply of crap we don’t need.
More and more, our attention is becoming a valuable asset. Advertisers should have to provide us with something besides information about the product they are hocking in order to reach us. We shouldn’t be forced to give our attention away when we don’t want to and the continuing abuse and commercialization of our public spaces should come to a halt.
The use of public space is unfailingly controversial, particularly when it comes to how we adorn the streets and squares where we meet, socialize, and get videotaped by CCTV cameras. Some people prefer their surroundings Hannah Montana clean; others consider any wall wasted that isn’t swathed in the spray-painted angst of teen taggers, and still others aren’t comfortable unless the streets are decked out in neon logos like the Ginza at Christmas.
Anyway, before I start singing the theme song from Different Strokes, what I’m getting at is, with such variance of opinion, where do we draw the line? Should Toronto ban billboards?
The quick answer is no. Billboards support an industry that employs hundreds of people designing, manufacturing and erecting signage. They provide valuable information on products and services, occasionally with wit or sex appeal. They add life and colour to the urban landscape.
So why ban them? Well, some people don’t think they look nice. Other folks are just uncomfortable with commerce of any kind, and prefer not to be confronted with this ubiquitous evidence of our collective lust for consumables.
However, because even the most fanatical opponents of outdoor advertising recognize the subjectivity of such arguments, the case more commonly made is that greedy advertisers are usurping the public space with a forest of ugly billboards, and that the situation can only be reversed by getting rid of the damn things altogether.
There’s some truth to the idea that left unchecked, commercial signage will multiply to a point where even the most committed free marketer might want to put the brakes on. As the obsessive but interesting site illegalsigns.ca observes, lack of effective bylaw enforcement in Toronto has led to a proliferation of illegal and over-sized signs, many of them adding insult to injury by not even paying their fair share into the city coffers.
That, however, is an enforcement issue and not a reason to toss out baby and bathwater. Sure, 8 meter tall lingerie models chugging sports drinks high above the quaint old-timey streets of downtown Oakville might be a little jarring. However, in Times Square, or notionally Dundas Square if we can ever get it right, billboards spice up the streetscape and pay their own way at the same time.
In 2007, faced with a Wild West scenario where the public space had become engulfed in illegal ads, São Paulo, Brazil prohibited all outdoor advertising. However, with a clean slate established, the city is now working with advertisers to reestablish a commercial presence in a way that’s manageable and appropriate. In Auckland, New Zealand, in what was widely considered an endeavour more political than practical, city councilors attempted to push through a bylaw which would have prohibited all billboards. After much debate, a vastly modified version was passed which permitted existing (legal) signage to remain, banned billboards in heritage areas where they were clearly inappropriate, and assigned more money to the enforcement of existing laws.
Toronto is not São Paulo and doesn’t require draconian measures. As in Auckland, a reasoned approach to what works and what doesn’t, accompanied by more vigourous enforcement of existing laws, is enough to serve the needs of the city.